Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

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Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Themes class, race and the press will be familiar to fans of The Bonfire of the Vanities but the focus here is on Miami and not New York. Wolfe's biting satire of the rich remains as sharp as ever but there are also patches of rambling repetition. This may not be Wolfe on top form, but that's still more entertaining than many younger writers at the top of their game.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 720 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099578536

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He may now be 81, but there are no signs that Tom Wolfe is mellowing. Is his latest Back to Blood another magnificent addition to the Wolfe hall or is he merely bringing up the bodies? Well for me, it's a little of both. The book's great strength and also its main weakness are in the similarities between this Miami-set story of racial and cultural tension and his New York-set classic The Bonfire of the Vanities. There are familiar themes: newspapers, racial tension, the super-rich behaving disgracefully and lost in their own ego-mania, and a lively writing style shot through with angry humour, all of which bring to mind The Bonfire of the Vanities. As there, he takes several characters from different worlds whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. But while taking those ingredients might seem a very welcome thing, the end result suffers in comparison.

Part of the problem is that the issues in New York that were part of The Bonfire of the Vanities seemed to define an age and had things that readers can recognize as, albeit extreme, versions of what they might see in their own cities and countries. The Miami issues are, to a degree, specific to that city and thereby hangs part of the issue. Racial tension is not, of course, confined to Miami, but the extreme pressure of the Cuban influx is, although that's not to imply that lessons cannot be learned from here. However, a further factor is that there are other writers, notably Carl Hiaasen who have made a career out of Miami novels so it's debatable how much new that Wolfe is able to bring to the table. With Bonfire, you felt that Wolfe really lived the New York experience. With Back to Blood you feel that he has researched it.

The central storyline is one of Cuban cop, Nestor Camacho who manages to antagonize almost all ethnic groups in Miami at some point in the book, particularly his own Cuban community and then the African American community. His faux pas with the Cubans is following orders to save or arrest (depending on your point of view) a Cuban illegal immigrant's attempt to reach US landfall. By stopping this happening, he becomes a traitor to the Cuban neighbourhood in which he lives and to his family. His Cuban girlfriend leaves him, although this is less to do with his actions and more to do with her social climbing as she hooks up with her boss, an egotistical psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction, whose clients bring him into contact with the ultra rich Russian oligarch community. This is part of my reservation about the book - Wolfe is at his cutting best satirizing the egos of the rich and powerful - he's less convincing when it comes to the under privileged, and Camacho is the main driver of this story and he falls very much into the latter category.

Wolfe does bring out the racial tensions amongst the African Americans, the Russians, the Cubans, the Haitians and the Anglos. The mayor is Cuban, the Chief of Police, African American, the press run by the Anglos, most of which are ex-Yale. It's no wonder that tension exists not least as when things start going pear shaped, there is a tendency to go 'back to blood' and to revert to cultural groups. For Nestor of course, this is less of an option as he gets rejected by his own community early on.

Wolfe's journalistic eye for observation has not left him and nor has his energy in writing. He's fond of inserting sounds, usually in groups of four to the descriptions, he uses the colon more than any writer has ever done before, using them in groups of six either side of a character's thoughts, and is no stranger to an ellipsis. In places, his satire is biting and angry, and full of passion. But too often, he gets lost on some thread that becomes quite dull and repetitive. He even makes a multi-boat based orgy dull, which is a feat in itself. There are times when he seems to go for shock factor for the sake of it rather than to enrich the story and some plot lines are merely abandoned - like the Haitian professor who wants to be French. And while the plot comes together nicely at the end, the ending is rather sudden.

Wolfe is still one of the more exciting novelists to read and it's partly that some of his earlier works were so good that it's hard to live up to this standard. There are passages of Back to Blood where he seems to be back to close to his best form, but ultimately the gaps between these are too rambling. It would perhaps have benefited from a tighter edit but for all that is it is a satisfying beach read for the summer and less than perfect Wolfe is better than a lot of other writers on top of their game. The result is a strange mix of being enjoyable but at the same time, slightly disappointing.

Our thanks to the kind people at Vintage for sending us this book.

Wolfe is at his most convincing detailing the vulgarity of the rich. For a look at those more on the edge of society, Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, also set in Florida, asks some difficult questions and is well worth reading.

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